Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

The Question is Government, Not Personalities

James W. Skillen


September 14, 2012

By James W. Skillen 

This article was originally published in the spring 1992 edition of the Public Justice Report. 

By now we've all heard enough about the packaging of candidates. Whatever the package design, the candidates—as well as the media—insist on making the current campaign look like nothing more than a popularity contest between contestants who have contrasting attitudes, opinions and approaches. 

The media then interpret voter disinterest, disgust and even antagonism as expressions of dissatisfaction with the leading contestants. 

Almost all of this, however, misses America's deepest electoral problem. Voter concern, ultimately, is not about picking the most likable or winnable contestant. The chief concern is to obtain sound government for this country. Citizens are less interested in the opinions of candidates—or in who might win—than in finding out if any presidential/congressional team can both propose and carry out a program of meaningful government. 

Nor is the problem simply Congress or the presidency, as if "term limits" or a "line-item veto" could solve the country's ills. The problem is not just abortion, or growing federal deficits or some other particular issue. The problem is finding a way for voters to hold government accountable to govern according to a promised program. 

It is simply no longer satisfying for most of us to listen to candidates express their opinions and preferences on a variety of issues. Why should we care about their scattered words and promises if, after they are elected, they cannot govern? The truth we now sense is that no single person for whom we may vote (whether president, representative, or senator) is able to make a significant difference by himself or herself—no matter how popular he or she might be. And, tragically, our system allows us no means of voting for a whole team—a whole party with a comprehensive program that represents our convictions about what government should do. 

To be sure, a strong presidential leader who wins a huge electoral mandate in November would have a better opportunity to lead Congress than a president who barely wins election and does so without having defined a coherent program. But waiting for that kind of individual person to arise is like waiting for a magical cure to the ills that lie deep within our system. 

The time has come for us as citizens to quit looking for an individual political savior and to get back to the hard work of being citizens. Even if electoral reform is not possible in the near future, we must take organized action—through membership in organizations like the Center for Public Justice—to define a sound, comprehensive program for public-interest government. We must come up with coherent, multi-issue criteria by which we will evaluate those for whom we vote. 

At the same time, however, we really must begin working together with citizens everywhere for electoral reforms that will allow all of us, in our different circles, to enter into serious debate with one another about competing parties and program proposals in their entirety. The kind of electoral reform I am talking about calls for CPR for the body politic. What, you ask, is CPR? It is "Citizens for Proportional Representation"—a new movement for fundamental reform of our electoral system. 

—James W. Skillen is the former President of the Center for Public Justice. For more information about electoral reform, including proportional representation, see this article, also from The Public Justice Report.

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”